The top US general in Afghanistan stepped down on Monday as the United States’ military withdrawal from the country nears completion.
Gen. Austin Scott Miller transferred his command authorities to Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the leader of US Central Command, in a ceremony in Kabul on Monday.
The transition of command authorities is a key milestone in the US’ military withdrawal from Afghanistan. It comes days after President Joe Biden said that the full drawdown of forces would be complete by the end of August and as the Pentagon acknowledged that the Taliban are intent on using force to take over the country.
Miller, who was the longest-serving US commander throughout America’s nearly two decades of military involvement in Afghanistan, has repeatedly voiced concern about the pace of the Taliban’s territorial gains and the potential for civil war in the country once the US military campaign is complete.
As he handed off leadership responsibilities, Miller noted the escalating violence driven by Taliban attacks and emphasized that it will not help establish a political agreement with the Afghan government.
“I’m one of the US military officers who’s had the opportunity to speak with the Taliban,” Miller said. “And I’ve told them … it’s important that the military sides set the conditions for a peaceful and political settlement in Afghanistan. We can all see the violence that’s taking place across the country. But we know that with that violence, what is very difficult to achieve is a political settlement.”
In Washington on Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby was asked if the department thinks the Taliban want to take over the country.
“It is clear from what they are doing that they have governance designs, certainly of a national scale. It is clear from what they are doing that they believe there is a military solution to the end of this conflict,” Kirby said.
The Biden administration is beginning to work with other countries to lay out what the Taliban will get if they engage in a political process, and what cost they will pay if they do not engage, a senior administration official told CNN on Monday.
The effort is part of a new chapter of US diplomatic engagement in Afghanistan that comes as the Taliban make continued gains, conducting attacks and seizing territory in the country.
Biden has asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad to “hypercharge” US diplomacy with Afghanistan, State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week.
Khalilzad will lead this effort and has planned meetings with other countries in the coming weeks, the State Department announced over the weekend.
“In his travel, Ambassador Khalilzad will continue to engage in determined diplomacy and the pursuit of a peace agreement between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban. As part of the United States’ ongoing support of the peace process, he will work with all parties and with regional and international stakeholders to further advance a consensus on a political settlement,” the State Department announced. “Political accommodation on the part of all sides remains urgent.”
Khalilzad will visit Qatar, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, the announcement said. He will also meet with officials from Russia, China and European countries, the senior administration official said.
Price said Monday that on this trip, Khalilzad’s message to the Taliban “will be consistent with the message that we have reiterated all along and that is, we continue to call for an end to ongoing violence. We know that violence has been driven largely by Taliban. We know that a negotiated settlement between Islamic Republic and the Taliban is really the only way to end 40 years of violence and importantly to bring, to Afghanistan’s people, the safety, the security and the peace that they seek.
“So as Ambassador Khalilzad is there, he will urge the sides to engage in serious negotiations to try to determine that political road map for a future for Afghanistan that leads to a just and durable settlement. Those are very important to us.”
Price added a warning that “the world will not accept the imposition by force of a government in Afghanistan. Importantly, legitimacy and assistance and popular mandate within Afghanistan for any Afghan government can only be possible if that government, again, has the support of the people and for the United States and the international community, if it has a fundamental and basic respect for human rights.
“For us, that is not negotiable.”
The State Department remains in direct contact with the Taliban and has not detailed what – if anything – would prompt it to cut off that dialogue.
Biden acknowledged last week that the Taliban were now at their strongest since 2001 but added that he trusted “the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped” than the Taliban.
“They have the capacity. They have the forces. They have the equipment. The question is: Will they do it?” Biden said about the Afghan government.
At Monday’s ceremony, McKenzie expressed confidence in Afghanistan’s armed forces and pledged ongoing US support for both the military, the country’s government and its people.
“I will continue to exercise authority over the conduct of any and all counterterrorism operations needed to protect the homeland from threats emanating from Afghanistan and will continue to lead US efforts to develop options for the logistical, the financial and the technical support to Afghan forces once our retrograde is complete,” McKenzie said. “The most important thing that continues is our support to the people of Afghanistan, and to its armed forces, we are confident in you. We are confident you have what it takes to protect your country.”
This story has been updated with further developments.
CNN’s Maia Noah, Kevin Liptak, Chandelis Duster and Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.